In late October 1969 I left Spain and went home for a month’s leave. I had orders to report to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, for SERE training in late November, and then for further transfer to Naval Security Group Department San Miguel, Philippines, prior to reporting to Naval Facility Da Nang, Detachment Delta at Camp Tien Sha in mid-December.
I reported to Coronado and began the three-week course which consisted of classroom lectures on Vietnamese culture, geography and history, survival and evasion techniques, Geneva Convention rules and requirements, and basic weapons training. My classmates and I knew that the last few days of the course included a 24-hour exercise on the beach and a two-day simulated POW experience in the mountains at Warner Springs, CA where you were supposed to apply the techniques you had just learned. When we returned from Camp Pendleton Marine Base where we received weapons training (grenades, .45 pistol, M-16, and M-60), we concentrated on eating well, because the exercise portion of the training was about to start. I remember one of the fellow CT’s named Busby, a tall black guy who had orders to Phu Bai, coming up to a couple of us shivering the night away on the beach and telling us in a conspiratorial voice that he had stolen a carrot from the course faculty kitchen. We sat on the beach chuckling and savoring our portions of that shared carrot. We were unsuccessful in catching any crabs or lobsters along the jetty, but one of the fellows did find a dented can of Franco-American spaghetti in a small dump site. We beat the can open with rocks, but not much nourishment resulted. The following morning, we were bussed to Warner Springs and the POW experience began.
At Warner Springs, before being split into several groups and loaded onto trucks, we received instructions on how the exercise would proceed. We would be taken to the top of a wooded canyon and once released we would have four hours to attempt to evade capture and make our way to what was described as “freedom village” about two miles down the canyon where those who succeeded in making it unassisted would be treated to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At the end of the four hours a siren would sound and that would be the signal for those not already captured to turn themselves in. We were told that we would get about a twenty-minute head start before the nasty nation people would begin pursuing us.
They lied. Ten minutes after jumping from the rear of the truck and starting down the canyon we heard gun shots and whistles and dogs barking behind us. Up until this point I think most of us had the attitude that this might result in our getting a little dirty, but that we would get through the day okay. I remember crawling under a big clump of mountain laurel and lying as flat as I could as I heard people coming through the woods behind me. Then I heard the nasty nation people taunting us. They were speaking a kind of English, but the words were almost all gerunds – ending in “i-n-g” – like “Go ahead you fucking dogings and give uping and we will letting you having some fooding…” I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. And then I saw some of them about thirty yards away find a guy and my heart immediately went up into my throat. They pulled this poor guy up and started punching and kicking him. They were dressed in olive green uniforms with caps that had big red stars on them, and they were acting very serious. I remained still as the noise around me moved lower down the canyon with occasional screams, gun shots and whistles. My pulse was pounding, and I waited about thirty minutes before beginning to move cautiously down the mountainside toward “freedom village?”
At the beginning of SERE school, we filled out and signed some papers that provided some basic information to our faculty and would-be captors. Some of that information would be used in interrogation sessions later in the course. I had been warned about this, so I provided some bogus information about my sisters’ and former girlfriends’ names. Those papers made it clear that unless you successfully completed the course, you would not be permitted to deploy to Vietnam. The papers also authorized a modest bit of physical abuse necessary to make the training more realistic. In hindsight, the word “modest” was certainly subject to interpretation, and the next forty-eight hours were to transport me almost to an alternate universe where at times I began to wonder if I was still in California in the good old USA.
At the sound of the siren, I stood up and began walking in the direction of the sound. I soon saw other guys walking through the woods and we nervously shared our experiences with each other as we approached a compound that we supposed was freedom village. Upon entering the compound there was chaotic activity taking place in several areas and the gerund-laced speech of the nasty nation captors rang in our ears. Students were being roughed-up, screamed at and pushed in every direction. I was grabbed and placed in a small line of fellows who it seemed were destined to share the fate of the poor guy in front of us who was lying lashed to a sloping board in front of us – feet higher than his head which was covered by a wet towel. The fellow was sobbing and gasping for air. He was surrounded by several nasty nation people who were grinning and shouting questions at him. As he was interrogated, he tried to limit the information he gave them to those items permitted by the Geneva Convention, i.e., name, rank, serial number. To make him more cooperative, water was slowly dribbled onto the towel over his nose and mouth making it nearly impossible to breathe. Within seconds his body was jumping with convulsions as he tried to dislodge the soaking towel. His questioners then removed the towel and asked him to describe his duties, and he began to give them chapter and verse of his job description. “I’m an aviation structural mechanic working on F-4 Phantoms and I…..” This information caused his tormenters to laugh and comment that they were glad he was now cooperating. As I stood there, I thought I was going to piss myself – I was that scared. I had just witnessed someone being “water boarded” and it was very disturbing. Years later after 9/11, as the debate about the US treatment of detained terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay raged in the press and public, I was transported in my mind back to 1969 and Warner Springs and it still troubled me after all those years.
To my great relief, only one more person in the line in front of me was subjected to the water board. A series of whistles blew, and we were herded to the middle of the compound where we were then pushed in the direction of several trucks. Before being loaded in the trucks we were bound and blindfolded and told to be quiet. After about a fifteen-minute ride the truck stopped, we were unloaded and again herded into a large group before another compound where we were unbound and instructed to remove our blindfolds. What we saw immediately was a large Viet Cong flag – bars of light blue and red with a large yellow star in the middle – waving from a flagpole inside the compound in front of us. We also noticed several watch towers on the corners bristling with machine guns and barbed wire. There were green uniformed nasty nation people everywhere. At this point we were lined up and told to organize ourselves in rank order left to right. The leftmost person was the highest-ranking officer in our group and the rightmost person was the most junior enlisted man. We were then given a POW number and told to remember this number. I recall that the senior most member of our group –POW#1 – was a commander (O-5), while my number was somewhere in the middle of the group – I was an E-5, second class petty officer.
Upon entering the compound, we were relieved of our clothes except for shoes, socks and skivvies, and led quickly to a large row of low-roofed very small huts like dog houses and told to get in and be quiet. We were instructed to make no noise and to only speak when someone either walked by your hut or walked on top of your hut and asked for your POW number. We were given water and I was grateful to have it. It was now late afternoon and not yet cool, but I could guess that before the night was over it was going to be chilly. It became eerily quiet, the only sound being an occasional order by a nasty nation person – “What is your fucking POW’ing numbering?” – followed by a loud rap on someone’s hut. After a while you could sense that people were being taken from the huts for some purpose. I remember trying not to think too much about what was going on and reminding myself that this whole experience would soon be over. I played my imaginary piano while awaiting the rap on my hut roof.
The next twenty-four hours were a bit of a blur – interrogation sessions followed by custodial duties such as raking the POW compound with our fingers, more interrogation, and placement in the “special” box. The box had a heavy padlocked lid that flipped up to allow several individuals to be loaded into small side-by-side compartments. We were instructed to assume the fetal position as they slammed the lid shut and padlocked the apparatus to great fanfare. “You fucking dogings will be staying in thereing for the resting of your liveings!” For those prone to claustrophobia this was a challenge. The nasty folks went down the row of compartments asking for the POW numbers of those of us in the box. The fellow next to me called out “Number Two” and then started to panic. He was soon screaming and begging the nasty folks to let him out, explaining that he had a herniated disc and was in excruciating pain. As the nasty folks chuckled, Number Two was gasping for breath and sobbing and stating that his squadron’s flight surgeon could verify his condition. I attempted to stay calm and relaxed in my confined space while inches away Number Two was bargaining – more like pleading – for his release. After about fifteen minutes we were released from the box and Number Two was removed from the compound and we were later told that his orders to Vietnam were revoked.
Following a sleepless cold night interrupted frequently with machine gun bursts, we were again herded into the center of the compound where we assumed we would again be asked to salute as the Viet Cong flag was raised up the flagpole by a huge Samoan member of our group who had been singled out to be the “slave” of our nasty nation jailers. I remember standing there shivering and hungry, and being overcome by emotion as the loudspeaker in the compound blared out the Star-Spangled Banner, and instead of the Viet Cong flag, the American flag went up the pole and a voice said “Welcome back, men, to the United States of America.”
As we filed out of the compound and were loaded on trucks, we passed the nasty nation staff. Unlike many of my fellow students who were actually shaking their hands and thanking them, as I wiped the tears away, I was not ready to jump on that bandwagon. After a short ride we were delivered to a dining hall where a buffet awaited – a breakfast to remember. We were returned to our barracks and after getting a shower and putting on clean clothes we spent the remainder of the day undergoing a detailed debriefing of our experience. Each student was evaluated and given useful advice on how to handle particular situations or deal with conflicts and guilt associated with behavior in captivity. Looking back on the SERE experience, I realize that it taught me some things about myself and my ability to handle adversity. I matured quite a bit in those few days, probably more so than in any period in my life.
Written by Fred Bumgarner